Iconic neo-Expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat—whose work is among the most expensive American art of all time—is remembered in an inspiring collection of gear by Lee denim company, a denim jeans brand that dates back to 1889.
Lee released a new collaboration on Feb. 6 that features the neo-Expressionist work of the late artist. Inspired by the street art scene of New York City, culminating in the early 1980s, the collection combines Basquiat’s creative vision, finding an inner child that’s often lost as we grow up. The Lee x Basquiat collection includes denim jeans, suiting pieces, sweaters, T-shirts and jackets.
Some of the denim pieces don a print of Basquiat’s “Phooey” painting, a piece with commentary about consumption, property and the human condition. Another piece features Basquiat’s self-portrait “Warrior,” which shows how Basquiat saw himself in the art world. Another piece features the color scheme and bold stripes from Basquiat’s “Pez Dispenser.” The prices for the clothing starts at $65, which means they’re not designed for elitist art collectors—just everyday people.
“Lee has always celebrated originality, and in our 100 years we’ve been part of American culture, especially the ‘80s around NYC,” said Brigid Stevens, global vice president of marketing for Lee. The Lee x Basquiat collaboration fuses art, style, and culture together to deliver pieces that are timeless and also unique—original icons made even more so with these iconic pieces of art.”
The Legendary Artist
In a matter of years, Basquiat went from being homeless and tagging SAMO (meaning same old shit, and it’s now copyrighted) to selling highbrow paintings fetching over 100 million dollars.
In May 2017, Basquiat’s painting of a skull, “Untitled,” sold for $110.5 million at Sotheby’s, and it was the highest price ever paid at auction for artwork by an American artist in a public sale at the time. The New York Times called its price tag “mind-blowing,” and curator Jeffrey Deitch said, “He’s now in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso.” Only Andy Warhol surpassed that, selling “Marilyn” for $195 million in 2022.
Similar to the Expressionists of the late 19th century and early 20th century in Europe, neo-Expressionism was a total rejection of draftsmanship and realism, with a mish-mash of postmodern cultural, historical, nationalist, and erotic themes. Basquiat famously said that he couldn’t draw, and he said it often. It was his departure from societal norms that made his work so appealing.
“This city is crawling with uptight, middle-class pseudos trying to look like the money they don’t have,” Basquiat told The Village Voice, which is often cited. “Status symbols. It cracks me up. It’s like they’re walking around with price tags stapled to their heads. People should live more spiritually, man. But we can’t stand on the sidewalk all day screaming at people to clean up their acts, so we write on walls.”
While marketing a denim line was probably the last thing on Basquiat’s to-do list, it’s one way his family and estate can keep his name alive. He was also a major proponent of cannabis.
Thrown Out of the House for Smoking Pot
When Basquiat was caught by smoking pot in his room at age 15, his dad unleashed a fury that drove him to run away and live on the streets. Multiple biographies indicate that Gérard Basquiat threw him out for smoking pot in his room.
Most of his days then were spent sleeping on benches in Washington Square Park in New York City. Once on the street, Basquiat experimented with other drugs such as LSD and heroin. Had he stuck with cannabis and natural drugs, he might be alive today.
Gil Vazquez, executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation, told High Times about the relationship between Keith Haring, Basquiat, Fab 5 Freddy, and other artists in New York City’s street art scene at the time. “He really attracted like minded people and various kinds of energy,” Vazquez said.
In July 1988, Basquiat told Haring that he was facing the fact that he was addicted to heroin and had a problem—their only conversation on the matter. On August 12, 1988 in New York City, Basquiat overdosed on heroin. Unfortunately, being deceased in the world of art means the paintings are worth much more.
Basquiat remains in the “Forever 27” squad of artists that includes Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and so on. But today one way you can remember him is through Lee’s collaboration.